Voice-first doesn't suck
Feb 16, 2021

How to Create a Compelling Voice-First Experience

Voice-first has come under some scrutiny lately. Disappointment in a promised revolution that has been more of an accelerated evolution, and a vision of a world like the interior of a Star Trek ship that hasn’t been fully realized, have all led to a certain disillusionment. Thinking about how many people only use their voice assistants to set timers or play music can leave us feeling like voice technology has not delivered on its promise of 5 years ago.

In reality, it’s a matter of a glass half-full or half-empty mind-set. Approached from another angle, the voice-first era is here and there is a lot more going on than low-level interactions with a smart speaker at home. Technology that began with a command and control structure has moved into natural sounding interactions between people and machines. Using the existing technology, compelling voice experiences are possible now—but only if companies are willing to customize their voice assistants to meet specific user needs and desires.

Compelling voice experiences already exist

Some market leaders have already implemented, or are in the process of implementing, voice assistants that are considered the best examples of voice-first interfaces. One of the first to embrace the potential for voice user interfaces—as a way to provide safer, hands-free driving experiences—was the automotive industry. But it didn’t stop there. Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Honda, and others are now creating voice-first experiences for their infotainment systems that are turning cars into computers on wheels. These systems are delivering drivers’ information from the cloud that inform their travel experiences, daily activities, and even purchasing decisions.

Using the existing technology, compelling voice experiences are possible now—but only if companies are willing to customize their voice assistants to meet specific user needs and desires.

Car companies aren’t the only ones. Forward-thinking companies, like Snap Inc. and Pandora, are using voice to create customer experiences on their mobile apps that go beyond touch, type, and swipe-only interfaces. Financial institutions, like Bank of America, are making customer service personal, convenient, and always-on. 

Mastercard, and others, are crossing lines of business to create convenient, frictionless, and hygienic solutions for their business partners. TV manufacturers and other home device companies are finding ways to create value beyond simply giving their customers the ability to change the channel—and they’re doing it with voice user interfaces.

The difference between the successful implementations of voice assistants and those that turn into glorified egg timers is one key element: compelling experiences through customization. The question companies need to ask now is, “Are we creating a voice-first strategy that includes a customized experience that will improve customer satisfaction, enhance brand affinity, and inform the product roadmap?” If the answer is no, or if you aren’t sure, it’s time to overcome the internal obstacles and develop a strategy that will carry your company into the rapidly evolving future of voice AI.

Give your brand a voice

Owning your voice experience is so much more that having a wake word or wake phrase that triggers access to your content—although a branded wake word is part of the experience. True experience ownership requires a voice assistant that has been developed specifically with your users in mind. Your voice assistant should facilitate a conversation between you and your user, allowing you to collect data and information about their interactions—data that you will use to improve both the customer experience as well as your product’s functionality.

Your custom voice assistant should literally become your brand voice—helping to define who you are as a company and expressing your unique personality. Voice technology opens up a new way for brands to build emotional connections with customers, but only if those connections are direct and consistent across channels.

If you already have a brand experience that your customers recognize, why would you create confusion by handing over your brand to a third-party voice assistant who can neither express your personality nor deliver a compelling experience. Furthermore,  why would you allow another entity to collect and analyze your customer’s preferences and user experiences?

Voice technology opens up a new way for brands to build emotional connections with customers, but only if those connections are direct and consistent across channels.

Owning your user data may be one of the most compelling reasons for implementing a custom voice assistant. The insights you gain have the power to change everything—think of them as your truest voice of the customer survey or most revealing product focus group. Then, use that information to prove the business value of a voice assistant and show ROI.

Be customer and user centric

Speaking of data and surveys, the best voice assistants are developed and designed based on thorough user and use case research. It’s surprising to know that user and environmental studies are the most often overlooked element of voice user interface design. Instead, thorough research should be the cornerstone of any voice assistant implementation.

Before designing a voice assistant, get answers to key questions:

  • Who are your most likely users?
  • Where do they live?
  • What are their ages?
  • What accents do they have?
  • What languages do they speak?
  • What functionality are they trying to get from your product?
  • What do they expect from your voice assistant?
  • How can you provide something more through voice?
  • What are opportunities for monetization?

These questions (and more) will help you determine your voice AI roadmap. Getting real answers by conducting adequate research will help you set goals and create focus for your design and development teams. 

If you’re designing for a geographically diverse audience, you don’t want to force them to speak the one or two languages available on a third-party platform. Reaching users in their primary language sends the message that you know who they are and you care about them as individuals. Be sure to elicit the services of native speakers who can help voice teams examine every aspect of the voice user interface from the lens of the user’s culture and the language’s nuances. 

“Brands that understand the details, context, and aspirations of their audience are better able to design for how people actually talk, not how we want them to speak.” 

Heidi Culbertson, CEO, Marvee

Once development has begun on your voice AI system, continue to test, iterate, test, iterate, and test some more. The more ways you can get your voice assistant into the environment and in front of the people who will use it in the real world, the more likely you’ll be creating a compelling experience. 

Solve specific challenges

Even in the Starship Enterprise, crew members approached different voice assistants in various parts of the ship to deliver specific results. They would never approach the bridge and ask for a cup of Earl Grey Tea, nor would they ask the food replicator to give them updates on astrometrics or environmental controls. 

The promise of the voice-first era will be realized when voice assistants become specialized. At that point, they also become experts that encourage users to explore their capabilities beyond setting a timer. Already, the companies that have delivered the most compelling experiences have created specialists that are delivering on the promise of a world controlled through voice. 

Today, you can open a banking app and ask for your balance, transfer money, and get loan information, then walk to your car, get driving directions, restaurant and parking information. And once you get out of your car, you can walk down the street playing “music for chilling” and then stop to take a selfie wearing dog ears.

The promise of the voice-first era will be realized when voice assistants become specialized.

In every one of these use cases, the voice assistant you use is a specialist. You’re not likely to ask your refrigerator for the weather outside and you probably don’t expect your banking assistant to give you driving directions. These specialized voice assistants work because each has been designed to solve a specific problem. They’re equipped with the right content domains, giving them greater context for understanding. 

Eliminate onboarding roadblocks

Designing and delivering a compelling voice user experience will eliminate many of the challenges of onboarding and education. For voice AI teams, the excitement and promise of a custom voice assistant may lead them to overreach and over-equip the voice user interface—leading to user frustration and roadblocks.

Instead, teams should focus on developing a voice assistant that delivers on their customers’ most likely use cases. User excitement will build with the knowledge that they are talking to a specialist and usage will expand organically. Focusing on your critical core cases will make sure you’re designing a specialized custom assistant that gives fast, accurate answers and not a generalist who may confuse “a nice beach,” with “an ice peach” and send your users on a wild goose chase for the information they seek.

“Voice requires an iterative approach. Give yourself the luxury of an iterative strategy after launch, and the result will be a dramatically enhanced experience with continually improved performance.” 

Brandon S. Kaplan, Founder & CEO Skilled Creative

Once you launch your first iteration, rely on your user data to determine which types of information your users are seeking, but not finding. Don’t give up on user education. Find ways to provide prompts to try something new and keep users up to date on new functionality. 

Be sophisticated and forward thinking

Revolutions are characterized as sudden changes in the fundamental structures. Given that definition, voice-first is not really a revolution. It’s been a natural evolution of technology that began with the internet and moved quickly to mobile applications. Once the mobile phone—with its voice capabilities—arrived on the scene, the next logical step in the evolution was to create more opportunities for people to use their voices. 

Already, voice AI technology is available to do more than we are currently doing in most cases. What hasn’t happened is the sudden, fundamental switch to voice over other types of interfaces and interactions. While we expect to see continued rapid adoption of customized voice assistants, voice interfaces will continue to be part of multi-modal experiences. After all, voice-first isn’t—and never was—voice-only. 

The next chapter in the voice-first era is dependent on companies in a wide range of industries to start imagining how a customized voice assistant can help improve the lives of their customers by making their products, services, and mobile apps more accessible, convenient, and hands-free. 

These same companies will also need to consider the true business value of a custom voice assistant, including the ability to stay competitive and improve customer satisfaction scores, convenience, and loyalty. Finding innovative ways to monetize their investments may be coming in the form of new business models and advertising opportunities. Brands, like Pandora, that have established voice assistants are already moving in that direction with voice ads.

 After all, voice-first isn’t—and never was—voice-only. 

At SoundHound Inc., we have all the tools and expertise needed to create custom voice assistants and a consistent brand voice. Explore Houndify’s independent voice AI platform at Houndify.com and register for a free account. Want to learn more? Talk to us about how we can help you bring your voice strategy to life.

Karen Scates is a storyteller with a passion for helping others through content. Argentine tango, good books and great wine round out Karen’s interests.

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